Esper: More Comprehensive Vetting for Foreign Students on the Way

By C. Todd Lopez

PENSACOLA (Jan. 23, 2020) -- As many as 60,000 students pass through Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida each year for a variety of training opportunities, including new pilots, new sailors, and students from as many as 150 foreign countries, and new vetting is on the way for those foreign students, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said.

"The vetting changes will be far more comprehensive," Esper said yesterday while speaking with reporters inside an aircraft hangar at the base. "It will look at every aspect of their background, it'll look at social media, and it will also involve continuous monitoring once they are here in the United States. ... We've taken any number of measures like that to ensure that we have a much higher degree of confidence with regard to each of the students."

The changes come on the heels of a terrorist attack at the school perpetrated by an aviation student from Saudi Arabia. On the morning of Dec. 6, Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a member of the Saudi air force who was attending aviation training, opened fire in a classroom. A subsequent Justice Department investigation declared the attack an act of terrorism that had been motivated by jihadist ideology.

Pensacola, which bills itself as "the cradle of naval aviation," is home to the Naval Education and Training Command and the Naval Air Technical Training Center. For sailors and naval officers, Pensacola provides training to pilots, aviation maintenance crews, and intelligence and cryptology specialists, among a variety of other specialties, many involving aviation.

While at Pensacola, Esper met with four of the first responders to the terrorist act, toured housing on the installation, and met with sailors in training to be ordnance technicians.

The secretary also met with Navy Capt. Timothy F. Kinsella Jr., the installation commander, and received a briefing on the shooting from the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

"We learned a little bit more in the wake of the investigation that was conducted by the FBI, NCIS and others," Esper said, adding that the session included lessons learned.

While talking with the installation commander, the secretary said that aside from new vetting procedures for foreign students, some immediate actions can be taken at the installation to increase security and make those living, working and training at the station feel more secure.

That includes possibly increasing roving patrols and setting up stationary patrols on the installation, Esper said, to give both students, permanent party personnel and families a greater sense of confidence that security is in place that can be even more responsive.

Some flight training for foreign students at Pensacola remains suspended. The secretary said resumption is pending a decision by the acting secretary of the Navy and the Pensacola installation commander.

Esper said training of international students at Pensacola would continue and that it remains important to the United States.

"It's very important to us building alliances and partnerships, all of which makes us more safe and secure," the secretary said. "And I'm thankful for it."